Originally created 09/25/98

Antidepressants play bit part in Coles-Coverdell drug debate

ATLANTA -- Georgia's U.S. Senate campaign appears to be nearing the end of a weeks-long drug-testing battle, which has included Democrat Michael Coles insisting on tests for legal antidepressants that his campaign all but concedes Paul Coverdell doesn't use anyway.

When the testing ends in a week or so, the campaigns say Coverdell will prove he doesn't use antidepressants and Coles will match Coverdell's written pledge assuring voters that he has never used illegal drugs.

Mental health experts contend that antidepressants -- with which millions of Americans treat depression -- should not be politicized.

"There's certainly a stigma for all mental illness and that's our battle, to fight that stigma," said Lynn DeWitt, education director for the Mental Health Association of Atlanta. "You see a headline 'Candidate receives treatment for depression.' Do they ever say 'Candidate receives treatment for heart disease or diabetes or cancer?"'

Antidepressant use was raised most recently in politics in the 1990 Florida gubernatorial election, when Lawton Chiles acknowledged he was treating his depression with Prozac. Chiles won by a wide margin.

Coles started the drug testing face-off in Georgia by announcing he had passed a test. Coverdell then passed a test and issued a challenge of his own. He swore he had never used any illegal drug and asked Coles to make the same statement.

Coles' camp insisted on a second test for Coverdell to add a screening for tricyclic antidepressants, arguing that had been included in Coles' test. Coverdell plans to take the test, though in a letter to Coles he described the exercise as "silliness."

Coles has offered no opinion on whether the legal use of antidepressants is relevant to a campaign, and he declined requests by The Associated Press for an interview on the topic.

His spokesman, Peter Kennedy, said Coles had no intention to make antidepressants a campaign issue. He said Coles' focus on the drug test he passed -- which included blood and urine samples -- is an effort to keep Coverdell "consistent" because of his support of increased workplace drug testing.

Coverdell also declined to be interviewed. His campaign spokesman, Dan McLagan, called the tests a "smokescreen," questioning why Coles has not yet signed the pledge that he has never used illegal drugs. Coles' campaign says he will sign it after Coverdell's second test.

Dr. Karl Hempel of Tallahassee, Fla., who is Chiles' doctor, said he thinks the public is understanding of the need of some patients for antidepressants.

"It's not the same as if they're smoking crack," he said. Depression's real common, about 15 percent of a family practitioner's office visits. A lot of people realize that there is a chemical-imbalance component and hereditary component to depression, and it needs to be treated just like those other diseases."

In 1972, Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern replaced his vice presidential nominee, Thomas Eagleton, after reports surfaced that the Missouri senator had been treated for manic depression.

In a 1996 speech in Nebraska, McGovern said widespread public misunderstanding of the disease left him little choice but to request Eagleton's withdrawal.

But 25 years of education, research, expanded diagnosis and new treatments have left politicians little to gain -- and much to lose -- by raising an opponent's depression or use of drugs to treat it, psychiatric and political experts said.

"It really has to be related to somebody's performance in office," Emory University political scientist Merle Black said of attempts to politicize depression. "Other than that it's just going to be seen as a smear."


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